The Books of Maccabees

If you’re Jewish, then you probably know the standard story of the Maccabees: the Greeks were defiling the Second Temple and forbidding Jews to celebrate their holidays, so a bunch of patriots called the Maccabees organized a revolt, purged the Temple, and established an independent Judea.

In fact, it’s a classic case of the winners getting to write history. The fuller story is that under Seleucid rule in Judea, there were internal clashes between the moderates and the fanatics. The moderates wanted to adopt positive features of Hellenistic civilization and integrate them into Jewish culture; the fanatics, of whom the Maccabees were a prime example, wanted a pure Judaic culture. The best modern analogy is of the moderates to Arab liberals who want to adopt positive features of the West like human rights, and of the fanatics to Islamists.

Being a Greek dynasty, the Seleucids were naturally pro-moderate. At one point the fanatics started violating the religious freedom of the moderates, who were tagged as Hellenized Jews. King Antiochus, who already had enough trouble with maintaining his rule and with not enraging the local superpower too much, decided it was a good opportunity to show his power by siding with the moderates and punitively establishing an altar of Zeus in the Temple.

Needless to say, a large contingent of Jews took exception to that, and overthrew him. The Maccabees were key in that overthrow, but even after Judea had reestablished its independence, there was a prolonged civil war between the moderates and the fanatics, which the fanatics eventually won.

The people who canonized the New Testament were a fairly liberal bunch that found loopholes in Mosaic law they used to nullify the most horrendous of commandments. For example, they struck down the commandment to slay any descendant of Amalek, on the grounds that after the Persian conquest it was impossible to tell who was an Amalekite and who wasn’t. In particular, they were progressive enough to exclude the Books of Maccabees from the Bible.

Ironically, Americans who want to appear multicultural try amalgamating Hanukah and Christmas, but neglect Passover entirely. The narrative of Hanukah is one of conservative nationalism that, in a modern analogy, makes the US look like an evil empire; this of Passover is one of freedom from slavery combined with a Puritan belief in the Promised Land – i.e. the same narrative as this of American independence, minus the anti-tax bits. Plus, Passover is far more important in Judaism than Hanukah. Passover is the only holiday that gets a full narrative in the Bible, while Hanukah is one of the two or three that don’t.

17 Responses to The Books of Maccabees

  1. Yoram Gat says:

    What are your sources for this tale? What makes the Maccabees fanatics and the other guys moderates, rather than vice versa? Sounds like a classic case of a local population facing a colonial cultural encroachment.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    What makes the Maccabees fanatics is that they kept violating the rights of people who wanted to syncretize Judaism with Hellenism. The moderates never violated any devout Jew’s freedom of worship, until Antioch established an altar of Zeus at the Temple to show the fanatics who’s boss.

  3. Bushbaptist says:

    Your anologies are accurate Alon. By and large the Greeks (and the Romans later) were tolerant of others beliefs. Both accepted Judaism as a legitemate religious belief and allowed people to worship as long as they didn’t preach sedition.
    The early Jews weren’t any more barbaric than anyone else at that time although there were extremists amongst them as well.
    The sad issue is that the barbarism has been excised from most religious text books except when describing the ‘Enemy’ (who-ever that was at the time). Many Jews and Christians are horrified when they are faced with the real truth about their own histories.
    I am writing a book (to be published next year) about the known history of the various tribes and clans that made up early Europe and West Asia. The research has been “interesting!”

  4. droog says:

    I think your statement that “The people who canonized the New Testament were a fairly liberal bunch that […] were progressive enough to exclude the Books of Maccabees from the Bible.” is too simplistic. 1-2Maccabees are part of the Catholic canon, and the Orthodox canon includes 3-4. It is true that 1-2 were only summarily cannonized in the 16th century and that a lot of debate was waged around them. However, 1-2Maccabees were always part of the Septuagint. It’s fair to say the books have always been controversial, but it’s hard to argue that the books were excluded by the progressive early Christians when the books were always part of one of the most accepted translations of Old Testament Hebrew texts. The early Church argued long about an official canon, but they hardly ever produced one. All that time, Maccabees was kept in the Septuagint. The issue escalated with Martin Luther and the Reformation.

    Quote from:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deuterocanonical_books
    “In the New Testament, Hebrews 11:35 refers to an event that was only explicitly recorded in one of the deuterocanonical books (2 Maccabees 7).”

    It is implied that some other NT quotes reference the deuterocanonical books, but these quotes also reference protocanonical books.

  5. Yoram Gat says:

    What are the violated rights that you refer to (Again, what is your source for the narrative)? What constitutes a religious right? What makes the right to worship a golden calf inherently more sacred than the right not to have calf worship practiced in your community? How about the right to exercise polygamy? How about circumcision? How about child sacrifice? Is someone who violates a person’s rights to food, shelter, healthcare or education a fanatic? How about someone who pollutes the environment? Does having a financial incentive to a certain behavior make it non-fanatical?

  6. Alon Levy says:

    What makes the right to worship a golden calf inherently more sacred than the right not to have calf worship practiced in your community?

    What makes your right to life inherently more sacred than my right not to have you live on my planet?

    How about circumcision?

    It’s funny that you mention that, because Bar Kochba’s just as fanatical rebellion was motivated by Hadrian’s general ban on mutilation in the Empire, which included circumcision.

    Is someone who violates a person’s rights to food, shelter, healthcare or education a fanatic?

    Why, do you have any evidence that the Hellenized Jews engaged in any kind of systematic impoverishment of the conservative Jews?

  7. Yoram Gat says:

    What makes your right to life inherently more sacred than my right not to have you live on my planet?

    I definitely see some things (life, shelter, safety from hunger, etc.) as being more important (or sacred) than others. My point is that each of those things has to be discussed separately, its status as a “right” has to be justified and the potential conflicts between “rights” have to be considered.

    You assume that the Hellenists’ religious “rights” (again, you still have not been specific about what rights exactly we are discussing here) are clearly more important than the religious beliefs of the Jewish traditionalists (what you call the fanatics). In the absence of an argument establishing this importance (which would be difficult to do without being much more specific than you are), this is just prejudice.

    Bar Kochba’s just as fanatical rebellion was motivated by Hadrian’s general ban on mutilation in the Empire, which included circumcision.

    So, are you in favor of violating the Jews’ right to circumcise their sons?

    Why, do you have any evidence that the Hellenized Jews engaged in any kind of systematic impoverishment of the conservative Jews?

    No (although I would not be surprised to find out that there was some kind of class warfare going on). I was thinking of the fact that most present day U.S. politicians (and a part of the population) are in favor of policies that have the direct effect of preventing access to those basic needs by some people – do you call all of these politicians fanatics?

  8. Alon Levy says:

    You assume that the Hellenists’ religious “rights” (again, you still have not been specific about what rights exactly we are discussing here) are clearly more important than the religious beliefs of the Jewish traditionalists (what you call the fanatics).

    It’s not the religious rights versus the religious beliefs. It’s that religion is by its nature violent and destructive; too many religions demand killing or converting unbelievers, and many more take exception to people’s right to choose their own religion. The rule that everyone may practice any religion freely so long as he doesn’t force other people to practice his religion, or commit any crime by a reasonable secular standard (if you think banning circumcision is too controversial, think of bans on female genital mutilation), is about the only rule that isn’t prejudiced in favor of one religion over the other.

  9. whig says:

    Atheism doesn’t have an unbloodied history either.

  10. Yoram Gat says:

    The rule that everyone may practice any religion freely so long as he doesn’t force other people to practice his religion, or commit any crime by a reasonable secular standard […] is about the only rule that isn’t prejudiced in favor of one religion over the other.

    Your rule does not favor any specific religion (it is certainly not the only one that would have this property), but it is definitely prejudiced against religion. Why are secular standards inherently superior to religious ones? After all, they are all based on some underlying axioms. You are being intolerant toward some other people’s axioms, just because they can be labeled “religious” (how do you even determine if some values axiom is religious or secular?) Why can one argue in favor of or against some rule based on any secular value but not based on a religious value?

    For example, in a society where religious cohesion is an important part of life, a religious deviant can be expected to either leave (and find a community in which his or her ideas are accepted), or keep his or her ideas outside of public life, in much the same way that someone who likes to play loud music at night has to leave or adapt.

    [I]f you think banning circumcision is too controversial, think of bans on female genital mutilation

    I would be willing to accept a circumcision rule either way – legalized or illegalized. My point is that it is by no means clear a-priori whether the Jews have a religious right to circumcision. It depends on community values, customs and other social factors. The issue of banning deviation from certain norms (religious or secular) is in the same category – its legitimacy depends on a complex set of factors.

    A general important point is that, contrary to accepted wisdom, the notion of self-evident natural human rights from which correct or moral behavior can be deduced is only useful in a limited set of situations. Many times what is right is not self evident and has to be considered carefully – not based on some set of formal rules (“rights”) but based on an evaluation of what course of action promotes the welfare of the people affected. This is why, to me, a fanatic is someone who, out of principle, adheres to a certain rule or behavior although it is clearly detrimental to the welfare of the people affected. You have not made the case that this applies to the Jewish Traditionalists.

    As to the violators of the rights to a minimum standard of living – these people are either fanatics (if this is for them a matter of principle) or evil (if this is to them a matter of cynical self interest).

  11. Alon Levy says:

    After all, they are all based on some underlying axioms.

    This is what you get wrong: axioms don’t matter, as long as you’re willing to evaluate things based on evidence. I posted about it a few weeks ago; KH said that there could be in principle incommensurable sets of axioms, but in fact there haven’t been found to be any incommensurable sets of which more than one does not blatantly contradict available facts.

  12. whig says:

    Alon, your presumption that religious beliefs are not based on evidence is not correct in every case, and the complementary presumption that secular values are always based on evidence is equally false.

  13. Yoram Gat says:

    [A]xioms don’t matter, as long as you’re willing to evaluate things based on evidence.

    Evaluating the evidence is just half the job – the values, or axioms, determine what is the desired outcome. We can agree on the factual assessment, but as long as we differ on what is a desirable outcome we would differ on the required policy.

    For example, some Laissez-faire advocates naively believe that the policies they support will help everyone. However, most Laissez-faire advocates are fanatics – they believe in the principle and even though they know that the poor will be hurt, they don’t view that as an undesirable outcome. Their evaluation of the evidence may be identical to that of the socialist, it is only their values that are different.

    A more mundane example is that of the loud music at night – I value music at night, you value quiet at night. There is no dispute about the facts, only about the objective function.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    However, most Laissez-faire advocates are fanatics – they believe in the principle and even though they know that the poor will be hurt, they don’t view that as an undesirable outcome.

    That only describes a small minority of libertarians, who are indeed fanatical (and obey every radical pathology I’ve described). The more mainstream libertarians don’t say it’s good to hurt the poor; instead, they argue that government regulations hurt everyone – for example, by saying welfare increases unemployment. The Cato Institute doesn’t say Pell grants are bad because they take money from the rich and give it to the poor; it says they’re bad because they cause tuition to skyrocket.

    Similar considerations apply to development economics. It’s not that the IMF and the UNDP apply different moral judgments to evidence they agree on; it’s that they disagree on the extent to which growth-mediated aid reduces extreme poverty, promotes self-sustaining growth, or achieves any number of other agreed-upon goals.

  15. Yoram Gat says:

    I disagree with you about this issue (I think most Laissez-faire advocates are primarily principle motivated – they don’t want to hurt the poor, but they don’t consider it a big deal. The evidence against IMF policies are overwhelming, and only fanticism can account for continued support of those policies). But this is tangential to our present discussion.

    To keep to the subject, let’s discuss the issue of behavioral norms such as music vs. quiet at night. Why, for example, is prohibiting car traffic on a street to promote pedestrian traffic a reasonable thing, but closing it down on the Sabbath unreasonable? Both just reflect the preferences (values, axioms) of some part of the population.

  16. whig says:

    Yoram, there are a lot of different groups of people in the libertarian movement, some of them are what you say, but I think the fundamental problem with the vast majority I have met is just social awkwardness and an inability to recognize society.

    Get them stoned, I say. They talk about ending prohibition, but few of them ever smoked a bowl of cannabis.

  17. whig says:

    And Yoram — it worked for me.

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